The Window by Nicki Frith
Image via State Library of Queensland
‘The Window’ was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2018 ‘Fiction’ category.
The morning after election night, she was Big News. The Metro had selected a small photo of her, taken from her Facebook page, smiling with her best smile. But it was the main photo that really caught the eye: a double-page spread of her extraordinary shop window sandwiched between the election results and some juicy celebrity scandal. Commuters glanced at the story as they rushed to work, the image briefly blackening their retinas. It continued to work its way through the underground, staining the fingers of commuters, as the sun arced over the capital through scattered clouds and highs of 19°C. At the end of the day, it reached its inevitable fate, ditched, trampled, smudged and torn, ready to be scooped up with the rest of the day’s junk and pulped to grey mush. Of course, she never got to read the actual story for the last thing she recalled was the crowd of amateur photographers, brandishing their phones, with their flashes bouncing like popping corn against the sunlit window. She stared at them, neatly framed for their cameras, and felt her throat contracting. Snap, snap, they went, as her legs flailed in the air. Snap, snap. Got it. A volley of lights crackling like fireworks. Then it was over, done with, screwed up, saved for deletion. In that instant, she felt nothing but life’s cruel brevity, and it knocked the breath clean out of her, like a right cross, square in the centre of her face. Verdict: death by accidental hanging. Sensational!
If they’d caved the door in sooner, cut her down, resuscitated her, then asked ‘Can you hear us?’, or ‘Is there someone we can call?’, she would have thanked them, shaken her head and said, ‘No. It’s ok. Just an accident. Not what you think. Really’. But they came too late. In that final moment, where she rushed in great confusion towards her untimely end, she saw with clarity the moment it all began: a day like any other, unassuming in its drabness. That was her final image; arriving at the charity shop to find the usual plastic bags filled with abandoned objects, as well as a polystyrene box of cheesy chips, half-eaten and smeared with ketchup being pecked at feverishly by a two-toed pigeon. She’d shooed away the pigeon and hunkered down to scoop it all up, the back of her neck flinching as it felt the first droplets of rain tic-tacking over the gum-covered pavements. Then something caught her eye. It was a discarded copy of that day’s London Metro, and on the front page, a photo of an instantly recognisable face. She grabbed that too and heaved open the shop door. It was a Monday: backroom day.
‘Being powerful is like being a Lady’, read the caption; ‘If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t’. ‘Ha!’ she said to no one in particular, then stared more closely at that hawkish face. The kettle whistled on the elderly stove, the steam bringing out the smell of dampness mushrooming across the walls. She absently turned off the gas and poured the water into a browning cup. Taking her first sip, she looked carefully at the photo on the front page, tracing the sinews of that old neck, rising up like a strangler fig, and then at the iconic auburn perm. In her mind, she heard the old chant – ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, the milk snatcher’ – the echo of the playground, a gang of them locked in arms, marching, not knowing what it meant but that it rhymed. And she recalled the Falklands War. She had no memory of any news before then, but the war had captured her young imagination. So far away and nearby at the same time. Played on TV. Travelling on longwave. How old was she? Seven perhaps. She could picture her father perfectly, hunched over the radio, protecting it from exterior noise and sticky fingers, bellowing ‘Sit yourself back down!’ to anyone who came near. She stared at the photo and thought of him aging slowly out of sight, barking at the world from behind his paper.
She sighed deeply into her tea, as thoughts of her father pricked at her conscience. And so she might have continued, blowing apathy into a tea-stained cup, were it not for the fact that, at the very depth of that sigh, at the point where there was not the slightest breath left, an idea unexpectedly took root, its radicle pushing down into the soft tissue of her mind. Unwittingly, she seized a pair of scissors, cut carefully around the image of Thatcher and carried it through to the backroom.
The strip light flickered on, sending particles of dust dancing over the bulging dustbin bags that lined the shelves. Backroom day was normally spent wringing her hands in despair at the accumulating piles of junk that no amount of sorting would reduce, but which grew at the same rate as shop sales plummeted. Yet this Monday felt different, more purposeful. She walked over to a shelf of abandoned picture frames, and after a few minutes found a dark blue one, Tory blue, to complement the red hair. She prised off the back, fitted the newspaper image into the frame and rubbed the glass rigorously with a cloth. Feeling unusually inspired, she began rummaging through the shelves looking for matching items. After a few hours, she’d found enough to begin re-dressing the shop window.
The radio played in the background: sounds of the ‘80s, the audio backing track to the Thatcher years, and there was a phone-in for listeners to talk about their memories, from the Thatcherites made rich from the property boom to the strikers and trade unionists who had lost their livelihoods. ‘Hello Dot,’ she said, addressing the elderly mannequin whose 1950s-vintage outfit had gathered a light layering of dust, ‘Time for a change, I think’. She began re-dressing Dot in a navy suit with shoulder pads and shiny brass buttons. She placed some sensible court shoes in the blank space where her feet would have been had they not been lost, and then fixed an auburn wig on her plastic head. The look was completed with a fraying blue rosette pinned to her lapel and a string of artificial pearls. Next, she found a stack of books of tangential relevance: a Reagan biography, some home improvement magazines and a few academic texts on neoliberalism and capitalism, which she propped up alongside a copy of the The Iron Lady (featuring Meryl Streep) and The Blair Witch Project. She also found some coal scuttles, several old-fashioned irons, a couple of porcelain ladies, a large broomstick, some glass milk bottles, a Monopoly set (missing Regent Street and the old boot) and completed the display with the Metro’s cut out of Thatcher in its blue frame. She stood back to take it all in, made a few quick adjustments here and there, then pleased with the result, said ‘Yes, that’ll do nicely’.
The next day, when she arrived at the shop, a small group of people had gathered outside and were laughing amongst themselves. Feeling self-conscious, she approached the front door, her keys at the ready and a customer smile fastened to her face.
‘Love the window!’ one of them shouted over.
‘Oh thanks’, she replied, feeling rather pleased, ‘thanks a lot’.
‘Are you open?’ they asked, ‘Can we come in?’
‘Of course’, she said holding the door, and to her surprise they bought the broomstick (unsold for at least five years), two of the milk bottles and a few other books they happened to find on the shelves.
A few minutes later, the door went again and a grey man in a sepia suit entered the shop.
‘Good morning!’ he said brightly.
‘Morning’, she replied.
‘Now she’, he said pointing at Dot, ‘was a great lady!’
He spoke expansively of the merits of Thatcher, then asked to buy the framed cut-out, and left with it pressed to his chest, like a precious relic.
Buoyed by these small successes, she quickly retrieved her copy of the Metro and cut out another image to frame, and that too was sold. And so it continued for the rest of the day. A slow but steady stream of customers, who ordinarily would have passed by without the slightest thought of entering a charity shop, were drawn in by her news display. Her banal shop window, rotting in its Victorian frame, indistinct from the hundreds of others lining the capital’s suburbs, had caught their attention. All because of her.
That was how it started, with the shop window and the news. Over the next week, she noted a marked increase in customers and sales, and with this came a rush of excitement, running like a fine silver lining along the cumulus grey of her daily life. The idea, small to start with, was beginning to grow, its root hairs multiplying, its plumule pushing optimistically upwards, as she began to do something that she had always refused to do. She began to read the news every day to find a hook for her window. Finally! A way of working through the incessant clutter as it arrived daily in broken boxes and ripped carriers, overflowing with the erratic turbulence of total strangers.
She thought of all the ragging piles, recycling piles, piles for washing, another for cleaning, the muddled mountains that she heaved into the communal dustbin, of all the worlds she’d imagined as her fingers sorted through the remnants of people’s lives. Smirnoff bottles and muddied boots, mannequin heads and blemished dolls, copies of Hustler fusty with use and phony flowers fetid with dust, banana skins browning in carriers, condoms stuck to fine bone china, spattered clothes and broken CDs, potato peelings in the bric-a-brac, so much of it faded and stained, off-colour and washed out, broken and battered, all marked for ‘throw out’. On and on and on… She thought of all the people she never saw, but whose junk pressed its way into her hands, under her nails, into her nose, under her skin. She thought of how they would rarely take their bags into the shop when it was open, when they would have to hand over their discards in person. Of how they would dump it under the cloak of darkness, or first thing in the morning, when the shop was closed, doing it quickly, guiltily before anyone could see. Of how they would disappear, leaving it all behind, forgetting instantly, feeling lighter, humming ‘What’s going on. Yeah. What’s going on’. She joked about it, over and again. ‘I’m nothing more than a glorified rubbish collector’. But the joke was threadbare, long fallen apart at the seams.
But now, suddenly, there was purpose, and she shook herself gratefully from her inertia. The news quickly became an endless supply of potential windows. She began with the newspapers she found abandoned on the tube. Seated upon the moquette that, after thirty years of commuter service, smelled just like the clothes in her shop, she scanned through every page. London’s terraced suburbia disappeared from view as she hurtled through the underground, her eyes absorbing and discarding news items as quickly as the paper on which they were printed. She saw a multitude of newsworthy displays that could be created out of the arbitrary objects and occasional gems collated in the backroom. It was all about focusing on something big that everyone was talking about. Of course, that was its genius. The news had everyone thinking about the same thing at the same time.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka inspired an ethical clothing campaign: ‘Serve your passion for fashion. Buy second hand!’ The Scottish referendum prompted a Scottish versus British window, Dot dressed in tartan and a Tam O’Shanter before a Union Jack littered with London tourist tat. The #BlackLivesMatter campaign prompted a window on police brutality, alongside paraphernalia celebrating aspects of Black culture. The discovery of the Black Death skeletons inspired a Victoriana window, with historical books on old London Town, alongside others on homelessness, sickness and poverty in the UK. The Rosetta Mission led to a tribute to Star Wars, filled with discarded rockets, airplanes, bashed-up Star Wars figures, an old telescope and books on stargazing. And it worked. Customers came pouring in to purchase items from the window. They would laugh at the subtle jokes or stop to chat and discuss the news. ‘I just have to buy that book…’ they would say, or this shirt, or that toy, or this novelty cup.
The more she read, the more her idea grew; and the more it grew, the bigger the sales. Before long, she could feel it funnelling into every aspect of her life, like a bamboo rhizome, bringing creative ideas flushing to the surface of her mind, fresh and bright as grass shoots. Why change the window only once a week when the news changes every day? And so began her exhilarating battle to stay abreast of the world’s sensational appetite for headlines. She read, sifted, revised, displayed, searched, discarded, sold and arranged, reeling out newsworthy windows with great gusto. She imagined herself riding a crest of current affairs that was constantly breaking just beneath her feet as she carved her way through the piles of bags and boxes that arrived daily, swelling like some mutant plastic ocean from the backroom. The refugee crisis, environmental catastrophe, Jeremy Clarkson, overconsumption, the Greek debt, the Hatton Garden heist, the UK elections, anti-capitalism, Cecil the lion, Tory austerity, and deaths, always deaths, of the masses and celebrity, of Leonard Nimoy, Terry Pratchett, BB King, Ruth Rendell, Cilla Black, Prince, David Bowie… But on went the news, living and breathing. A monstrous machine, consuming her entirely. Doctors at war over junior strike plan. Cameron sets date for EU referendum. Panama Papers: A special investigation. Zika virus, Hillsborough, Sadiq Khan’s election. The Queen turns 90, more refugees flee, 4000 bodies at the bottom of the sea, Jo Cox, Britain First, Remain, or BeLeave, exit, Brexit, all of it, toxic, gobbling her up in its whirlwind, as she ricocheted from sunrise to sunset.
But sales were at a record high.
Soon she realised that there was little point in going home. After all, everything she needed was in the shop. Seated under the naked light bulb that hung forlornly from the polystyrene ceiling, she roved between different media sites, trawling the news, sending out comments, hungry for responses. At one, two, three, even five in the morning, she would crash, crimson-eyed, still fully clothed, into a black sleep, and then rise thickly, as if from a pool of mercury, to rework her window and sort furiously through the jumble bulging from the backroom. Some nights, the work was so intense that she couldn’t be sure she had slept at all, and she would spend the day wandering blearily between sleeping and waking, as if trapped in a broken seam. Other nights, she would awake gasping for breath from a dream where she was drowning in a rising sea of junk and clutter, and spooling lists of things to do. She barely had time to notice that her calls to her father had become more sporadic, or that several months had gone by where she had not seen one of her friends. Besides, their chat was tedious when compared to the narcotic pull of current affairs. Day and night, she steeped her mind in the news, then poured it all out into her windows, as intense as dark roasted coffee, so that who she was, or who she was becoming, was reflected there, the two becoming one.
Then, at last, it was election night. For months, she had been collecting different objects especially for this occasion. Whatever the result, it was going to be the biggest and best window yet. She drank long blacks, her eyes burning hot into the computer screen, and watched for hour after hour as the results came pouring in: the rising of the political underdogs, the inelegant falls from grace, the delighted and the horrified. ‘Looks like a hung Parliament’, announced Dimbleby towards 4am, ‘a coalition will be needed’. ‘A noose!’ she thought and rose from her screen to begin dressing the window. The radio played in the background as she placed the selected objects into their positions, ready for their performance. At 5:30am, she sensed the night’s darkness ebbing away as the early summer sun rose over the horizon, brightening the sallow light in the shop. By 6am, the window was nearly finished, and the first commuters were passing by on their way to the city. Dot was ready, dressed in a trouser suit with pearls and a grey wig. The noose hung open from the ceiling, ready to receive. Just this one finishing touch, she thought, stepping up onto the stool, and placing it around her own neck to test the height.
She could no longer hear the tattoo of camera clicks, nor see the flashes bouncing against the shop window like flies, nor smell the excitement that turned the air oily with sweat, nor feel the press of bodies that pushed up together to swallow with wolfish eyes that extraordinary display. Perhaps she would have enjoyed the new-found scale of her celebrity had she been able to read the papers. There she was, right in the centre of her shop window, the noose tight around her neck, her face contorted, like some ghoulish cartoon for people to gobble up with their fried eggs. Perhaps she would have appreciated the irony, but for that unfortunate twist of fate. The stool had slipped from beneath her. The noose had suddenly tightened. Dot had slipped from her grasp. She had tried to cry out, but the noose had stolen her voice. She saw red, darting spots, blackness, her father, lights flashing at the window, and people banging and trying to get into the shop, and then nothing, nothing at all, but her reflection in the window pane.
Nicki Frith is a creative writer and lecturer in French at the University of Edinburgh. Her creative writing and her academic work often intertwine with short stories that are influenced by her interest in the afterlives of empire and in the legacies of African enslavement, as well as the pernicious effects of the media upon everyday lives. She is working, slowly, on a novel relating to her home city of Lancaster and its buried memories of slavery.